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Sunday, 4 October 2015

Which Greymouth photographer was gaoled for debt after his studio was pulled down to create a firebreak?

Abraham Solomon Levinski (fl.1865-1872)

Before his arrival on the West Coast in 1866, Abraham Levinski had run a barber’s shop and photographic studio in George Street, Dunedin. The combination obviously suited him, and in Greymouth he repeated the arrangement, establishing a haircutting saloon in Boundary Street in July 1866, followed soon after by a portrait gallery – the London Portrait Rooms - in the same premises.

Levinski had probably not bargained on much in the way of rivalry, so it no doubt came as an unpleasant surprise when fellow photographer John Low opened a studio at Shannon’s Bookshop on Mawhera Quay at much the same time. After several months of competition, Levinski dealt with the challenge by letting his rooms to Low, and moving his operations to Greymouth’s thriving neighbour, Charleston, in February 1868.

If the plan was to allow Low to exhaust himself, and the local market, it appeared to work. In June 1868 Low announced he was leaving, and Levinski resumed occupation of his former premises. Low was back in Greymouth by December 1868, but now billed himself as “of Greymouth & Onehunga”, dividing his time between the two centres and, intentionally or not, ensuring Levinski the lion’s share of the local trade.

In the meantime Levinski was busy establishing himself both socially and professionally.  He was a founder member of the town’s Ancient Order of Foresters, he participated in local athletics, gave his support to electoral candidates, sold photographs of the Greymouth floods, and promised to submit portraits of the Greymouth Handicap’s winning horse and jockey to the Illustrated Melbourne Post and Illustrated London News.

In August 1869 Levinski completed costly alterations to his studio. Aiming to increase his patronage and recoup his investment, he substantially reduced his prices, but a series of court judgements against him forced him to put his studio up for auction in early April 1870. The timing was unfortunate; in the early hours of 19 April 1870 Boundary Street was engulfed by flames, and in an attempt to arrest its advance Levinski’s shop was demolished to create a firebreak. With no means of realising any capital, Levinski was imprisoned for debt, and released only on the guarantee of tobacco merchant Jacob Basch.

A year later Levinski turned up in Fiji, opening a studio in Levuka in April 1871. Once again his timing was immaculate, competition arriving barely a month afterwards in the form of Melbourne photographer Frank Dufty. Levinski struggled on briefly, but soon dropped out of the trade, although continuing to live in Fiji.

Greymouth as it appeared in 1875. Fire was an ever present danger in colonial New Zealand, as most buildings were constructed of wood. The inquest into the 1870 conflagration that led to the destruction of Abraham Levinski’s studio failed to uncover the source of the blaze, but the implication was that it was caused by coals falling from an open fireplace. Rebuilding began within days. (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries. NZ Map 6537)

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Which New Zealand-born photographer is renowned for his portrait of the band from HMS Katoomba taken on the porch of Robert Louis Stevenson’s house at Vailima in Samoa?

Alfred James Tattersall (1866-1951)

On 12 September 1893 Robert Louis Stevenson wrote: ”Yesterday was perhaps the brightest in the annals of Vailima. I got leave from Captain Bickford to have the band of the Katoomba come up, and they came fourteen of ‘em with drum, fife, cymbals and bugles, blue jackets, white caps and smiling faces.”  The celebrated author makes no mention of the presence of a photographer at the festivities, but the scene was captured by his neighbour, New Zealander Alfred James Tattersall.

Tattersall was born in Auckland on 29 March 1866, the son of Lawrence Tattersall, a painter, and his wife, Sarah, both active Wesleyans. He learnt his trade from fellow non-conformist George Redfern, and briefly worked for the Sydney-based Tuttle & Co, probably joining them when their Auckland branch opened in May 1885. In 1886 John Davis, who had recently been appointed postmaster for the Kingdom of Samoa, hired him to run his photographic concern in Apia. Despite Davis giving priority to his postal responsibilities, the studio remained in his name throughout, Tattersall describing himself as “Manager [of] the business of J Davis”, when he informed the British Consul, Thomas Trood, of his employer’s death on 13 September 1903. Only with Davis dead did Tattersall take over the business in name too, erecting a sign outside the studio reading “A J Tattersall late J Davis” sometime between 1903 and 1907.

Tattersall is the only Samoan photographer known to have made a living exclusively from photography. This he achieved in part by continuing to print from his predecessor’s negatives. But he also took hundreds of his own landscape and river views, and is noted for his postcards and souvenir albums. His photo-journalism proved another lucrative source of income, the Auckland Weekly News publishing, amongst others, his pictures of the 1908 volcanic destruction on Savaii, and the New Zealand occupying forces in 1914. He married Samoan-born Blanche Yandall in August 1891, and lived in Samoa until his death in 1951.

Alfred Tattersall was on hand to record the occupation of Samoa by a New Zealand Expeditionary Force that landed at Apia on 29 August 1914. This photograph shows the Union flag being hoisted at the courthouse in Apia on the morning of 30 August. (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries. AWNS-19140917-43-2)

Thursday, 3 September 2015

The introduction to a travel guide by which New Zealand photographer begins, “The wish for mine enemy to write a book not having eventuated, I have written one myself”?

Charles Spencer (1854-1933)

It may have been a tongue-in-cheek remark, but as a high profile Tauranga businessman Charles Spencer was no doubt sensitive to the petty jealousies of local politics, and the introduction to “Spencer’s Illustrated Guide to the Hot Springs” can be read as a comment on the town’s lively public affairs.

Charles was the eldest son of Thomas Spencer of Parawai who, as one half of Spencer and Hall, ran a lucrative pharmacy and gold-broking business in Grahamstown, Thames. The pair also owned a local stamper-battery. By 1876, doubtless with his father’s financial backing, Charles reputedly paid £1000 for a stake in the Dunedin photographic partnership Clifford and Morris. In 1878, however, he and his brother George were in the employ of Burton Brothers, climbing and photographing in the Southern Alps when they reportedly discovered gold at Waihoa Flat, at the base of Mount Cook. The find was apparently sufficient to induce the brothers to abandon their expedition in favour of further prospecting, if only temporarily.

By April 1879 Charles was in Tauranga, where he opened a photographic studio in a tent next door to Wrigley’s Brewery on Willow Street. Within weeks the enterprise was put in jeopardy when a stove Charles had installed ignited the canvas and reduced his premises to ashes. But the setback proved fleeting, and in September 1879 Charles purchased H C Hoyte’s chemist’s shop on The Strand. By installing a manager, he was able to continue to work as a photographer in a studio he erected at rear of the building. He satisfied his thirst for adventure with photographic excursions to the South Island, occasional visits to the rumbling White Island, and regular trips to the Hot Lakes, one of which provided the basis for his 1885 guide book. Undaunted by the danger, he was also one of first photographers to reach Rotomahana after the eruption of Mt Tarawera in 1886.

An irrepressible entrepreneur, Charles was probably instrumental in his father’s chartering of the steamer Vivid (under the captaincy of his brother, George) on the route between Tauranga and Te Puke; he experimented with the cultivation of silkworms, and as a director of the short-lived New Zealand Manure & Chemical Company promoted the exploitation of White Island’s sulphur deposits. He was a skilled roller skater, and the first person in Tauranga to own a velocipede (much to the amusement of the locals). He immersed himself in local politics, becoming a borough councillor in 1887, but failed in an attempt to be elected mayor. In 1890 he moved to Auckland to promote a photo-lithographic printing process, collaborating with his brother Percy to publish views of Auckland and Thames.

Tragedy struck in 1894 when Charles’s father, Thomas, drowned in the wreck of the Wairarapa at Great Barrier Island. Charles was a witness at inquest where he criticised the inaction of the Union Steam Ship Co.

He continued to live in Auckland, working as a photographer with the Government Survey Department, and later as chemist with a sideline in landscape photography. He died in 1933.
This photograph of the Whanganui River at Pipiriki was taken by Charles Spencer after his relocation to Auckland in 1890. It is one of at least 9 original Spencer plates in the Richardson Collection at the Auckland Central Library. (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries. 4-3554)

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Which photographer was the first to visit the Pink and White Terraces?

Bruno Lancel Hamel (1837-?)

When in January 1859 the Auckland Provincial Government prevailed upon the geologist Dr Ferdinand Hochstetter of the visiting Austrian survey ship Novara to abandon his colleagues and undertake an expedition into the province’s vast interior, 21 year-old Bruno Lancel Hamel was recruited to act as the expedition’s photographer.

Hamel, of French Huguenot descent, was born in Tamworth, England in 1837, but had spent some years in Victoria, before returning to Britain in 1855 after the accidental death of his father at the Mt Blackwood goldfield. Unable to settle, Bruno and his mother left for New Zealand on the William Watson in August 1857, arriving in January 1858 in Auckland, where Bruno set up a photographic studio in Edward Street.

Hochstetter’s expedition proved a gruelling 1000 kilometre, 79-day journey by foot, horseback and canoe, and even with the assistance of four Maori porters, sections of the trek were deemed much too rugged to safely transport Hamel’s photographic equipment. Consequently while Hochstetter and his companions took a southerly route from the Waipa Mission Station to the Hot Lakes district via Lake Taupo, Hamel travelled directly eastward, rendezvousing with the rest of the party at Lake Tarawera. Despite this shortcut, Hamel still managed to arrive back in Auckland with a collection of some 60 glass plate negatives.

Within weeks his return Hamel had taken over John Nicol Crombie's former Shortland Street studio, now known as "Hamel's Atelier", and was offering for sale albums of photographic views from his recent trip. But Hamel's advertisement in Laurence's Auckland Almanac for 1860 (published in December 1859) gave as much prominence to his work as a musical instrument repairer as to his activities as a photographer. In March Henry Frith acquired Hamel’s premises, and this may well have spelt the end of Hamel’s photographic career in New Zealand. The following month the expedition camera used by Hamel was put up for public auction.

Bruno had married 17 year-old Caroline Umbers at St Patrick's Church, Auckland on 23 January 1860. But in September 1861 he arrived in Sydney on the Fortune, apparently leaving his young wife behind in Auckland. The following year Caroline, travelling alone, was caught up in the wreck of White Swan, en route for Wellington, where she appears to have settled, if temporarily. As for Bruno, in April 1863 the Maitland Mercury noted the brief appearance in West Maitland (New South Wales) of the photographers Sanders & Hamel. If this was Bruno, it could be the last confirmed sighting of him. In March 1866, Bruno’s mother advertised in the Sydney Morning Herald for her son to contact to her. After her death in November 1873, the family solicitor in Tamworth also advertised for information about Bruno’s whereabouts. Caroline, however, had already decided that Bruno was dead, and she remarried in December 1869, at the time describing herself as a widow. Despite her certainty, no trace of Bruno Hamel's death has ever been found.

In July 1859 the Auckland Provincial Government paid Bruno Hamel £10 for an album of photographic views taken on the Hochstetter Expedition. This album is now in the Sir George Grey Special Collections at the Auckland Central Library, and is prefaced by a portrait of Ferdinand Hochstetter, and by this panoramic view of Auckland – the earliest known view of the city’s waterfront. (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries. 755-Album-40)

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Which New Zealand photographer was reported dead in 1875, but actually died in Sydney in 1911?

Robert Henry Bartlett (1842-1911)

In the 1860s and 1870s Robert Henry Bartlett was a high-profile Auckland photographer. Like other photographic artists of the era, he found that persuading visiting actors and musicians to sit for him was a highly lucrative business. Such arrangements promoted both the photographer and the performer, and provided a steady source of income.

Reproducing photographs obtained from other sources was similarly rewarding. When Henry James O’Farrell shot and wounded Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Alfred, at Clontarf near Sydney, Australia in 1868, Bartlett quickly acquired cartes-de-visite of the prince and his assailant, and set about churning out portraits under his own name. Within a month he had sold some 1600 likenesses of the prince alone at one shilling each.

The scheme had unexpected results. After recovering, the prince made a brief visit to Auckland in December 1870, and Bartlett was invited to accompany the royal party to Rotomahana. Photographs he took during the expedition were displayed at his Queen Street studio, and he subsequently presented Prince Alfred with a set of 36 views of the colony. The prince reciprocated with the honorific title "Photographer to His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh", said to be the only appointment of its kind in New Zealand.

Rumours of Bartlett’s death reached the Daily Southern Cross newspaper on the evening of 2 August 1875. But it was a Mark Twain moment, the photographer’s demise being much exaggerated. Earlier in the day Bartlett had suffered an epileptic fit, collapsing outside the New Caledonia Hotel. He was carried to a private residence, and prescribed rest and quiet as the best aids to recovery.

Bartlett continued to practise as a photographer in Auckland until well into the 1890s, despite a disastrous fire that destroyed his premises in September 1873, and repeated flirtations with bankruptcy. He died at the Rookwood Asylum in Sydney on 2 June 1911.

In 1868 Robert Henry Bartlett’s studio was on the upper floor of the building at the corner of Wellesley Street West and Queen Street (extreme left). At this point of his career he traded under the name of Bartlett & Co at the rather grandiose sounding New Zealand Academy of Photographic Art. (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries. 4-85)

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Which photographer of the Auckland waterfront died in an airship explosion over Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1912?

Melvin Vaniman (1866-1912)

American Melvin Vaniman arrived in New Zealand from San Francisco on 4 February 1902 bringing with him large-format panoramic cameras of his own design and construction.

Originally a musician and opera singer, Vaniman stayed on in Honolulu to become a professional photographer when the opera company of which he was a member self-destructed while on tour in Hawaii. Throwing himself into his new profession, he developed refinements in panoramic camera design and experimented in artificial vantage points for his equipment. His work caught the attention of an American steamship company, and in 1901 he was engaged to photograph tourist destinations in New Zealand and Australia.

While in Christchurch Vaniman constructed a 32 metre tall pole to photograph the Canterbury Frozen Meat Company works. In Auckland, he clambered to the top of a ship’s mast to secure a view of the waterfront. Moving on to Sydney, he realised that if he was to capture a satisfactory view of the harbour, masts and poles or scaffolding would be inadequate. He therefore imported a purpose-made balloon to carry his camera aloft.

Vaniman’s aerial success encouraged him to travel to Europe, but his plans to photograph its principal cities from tethered balloons were thwarted by unfavourable atmospheric conditions. Undaunted, he teamed up with US newspaper proprietor Walter Wellman who employed Vaniman’s ballooning expertise in two failed attempts to reach the North Pole by airship in 1907 and 1909. After Peary’s conquest of the Pole in 1909, the pair switched their attention to the Atlantic, setting new world records for balloon travel in 1910. On 2 July 1912, during a second attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean, airship Akron exploded killing its skipper Vaniman, his brother Calvin, and three others.

One of the last photographs of Melvin Vaniman (centre) before his tragic death in the airship Akron. (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries. AWNS-19120815-12-4)